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Ralph Burns, Times Square and the Rockettes

book excerpt 3 Jan 29, 2021

"excerpt #3 from "Walking With Giants"

On occasion, Ralph Burns would join Billy Byers and me as one of the arrangers on Ian Fraser’s shows. Ralph was a legendary arranger in musical variety, Broadway and film. After attending the New England Conservatory Ralph moved to New York and joined Woody Herman’s band as pianist and arranger. In 1949 Woody had a hit with a composition written by Ralph called “Early Autumn” featuring an unknown tenor saxophonist named Stan Getz. The success of this record launched Ralph’s career. For many years he was one of the busiest arrangers in New York doing records and commercials. In the 1960’s he began orchestrating Broadway shows. One of his most celebrated collaborations was with Bob Fosse. Ralph won Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, and Drama Desk Awards. Needless to say, Ralph was a big deal. 


Ralph’s next project was “Star 80” with Bob Fosse. Ralph was going to write and record in New York so I offered to go to New York on my own dime and orchestrate it there. He accepted my offer and I was off to New York. It was good to catch my breath from my failing marriage and change my surroundings. Thankfully the work wasn’t that challenging so the fact I was an emotional basket case didn’t seem to get in the way. Until...Ralph told me that the ending of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” was being reshot and needed to be rescored. He asked me if I would be interested in doing the rescore? Of course, I said yes even though I knew my failing marriage would make concentration difficult. Not only was I being asked to write the new music in a hotel room at the Mayfair hotel across the street from Central Park, but I also had to learn how to layout a cue to a cue sheet with timings for the first time. Computers now make this process easy but at that time the process was more cumbersome.

Ralph also used Bill Hughes to copy his music. Ralph was looking for an orchestrator for an upcoming movie he was going to score so Bill recommended me. I had only done musical variety arrangements but had longed to work in film so I jumped at the chance. The project was called “National Lampoon’s Vacation”. From a musical perspective, it was not as challenging as the other work I had been doing but I didn’t care. I was orchestrating a Hollywood movie!

Ralph’s next project was “Star 80” with Bob Fosse. Ralph was going to write and record in New York so I offered to go to New York on my own dime and orchestrate it there. He accepted my offer and I was off to New York. It was good to catch my breath from my failing marriage and change my surroundings. Thankfully the work wasn’t that challenging so the fact I was an emotional basket case didn’t seem to get in the way. Until...Ralph told me that the ending of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” was being reshot and needed to be rescored. He asked me if I would be interested in doing the rescore? Of course, I said yes even though I knew my failing marriage would make concentration difficult. Not only was I being asked to write the new music in a hotel room at the Mayfair hotel across the street from Central Park, but I also had to learn how to layout a cue to a cue sheet with timings for the first time. Computers now make this process easy but at that time the process was more cumbersome. When writing  a film cue you had to either deal with streamers and punches or use the Knudsen click book. Film is an exact medium because film projection is a mechanical function. Film had sprocket holes that would be threaded into the projector. When the projector was turned on the film would be pulled through in front of the light and lens at 24 feet per second. The Knudsen click book calculated how many clicks (or beats) would be needed to reach a specific frame of film at a specific point in time. Even though I was aware of all of this, having the pressure to do it perfectly the first time under these circumstances was challenging to say the least. Before temp scores and mockups a composer would play their themes on a piano and talk a director through the music. Everyone would then convene at the recording session with only the composer really knowing what the music would sound like and how it worked with the film. In this instance, I pulled myself together and went to Ralph’s rented condo to play my music for director Harold Ramis. Thankfully he approved my music and I left to begin preparing for the recording session which was to be in a couple of days. 

On the appointed day I showed up at A & R studios with Ralph conducting. One of the things I recall from the session was the trumpet section. The setup for recording brass in LA was to have separate microphones for each player. I was more than a little curious when I saw four guys sit in a circle and play into one mic. I’d never seen that done before. The engineer asked them to play a chord to check the mic and adjust any balance issues. One by one they played a Db concert triad with the last note being a high Db. I was stunned by the brilliance of their tone and intonation. I could have never imagined a simple triad could be so thrilling! It helped that the players were exceptional. The section included Lew Soloff, Marvin Stamm, Alan Rubin and a young Jon Faddis on lead. The session was a success. Another day… another gig.


When I got back to LA I found out that Billy had been hired to write all of the arrangements for a Radio City Music Hall summer show directed by Ron Field. Billy couldn’t possibly do it all himself so I was brought on board and I headed back to New York.

 

Billy preferred to stay near Times Square rather than stay at a more upscale hotel near Central Park. At that time Times Square was seedy; full of hookers, pimps and peep shows. Billy’s logic was that after a few days he would blend in with the regulars at Times Square whereas if you were walking along the park someone could hit you over the head and jump the fence and escape into the park. We set up shop in one-bedroom suites in the Hotel Edison just off Times Square. Billy’s habit was to write through the night so we would start work in the afternoon and work until dawn. It was about this time that Billy started calling me Dracula because he didn't believe I could write a note until the sun went down.

Every morning as the sun went up I dutifully would walk a few blocks to deliver the previous night's work to Billy’s long time copyist Emile Charlup’s office. Emile had been Billy’s copyist in New York for more than 30 years and, because I was associated with Billy, Emile immediately accepted me. Even though this had happened numerous times in the past the significance of his acceptance wasn’t lost on me. 

It took us 3½ weeks to write the show. As we had done in Malibu, Billy and I wrote the whole show in ink, without a piano.

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